Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard last night decided enough was enough and admitted for the first time that the months of speculation about the owners, their thoughts on Rafa, their financial situation and their future intentions has taken its toll. The players and the manager have tried to steer clear of blaming poor results on the mess off-field. Rafa has been blocked from talking about the situation by the owners, and the players themselves are wary of discussing it in public for fear of the consequences from the under-fire owners. But last night Gerrard felt it was time to own up.
Speaking on Setanta Sports after Liverpool had been held to a draw after dominating a game yet again, Gerrard said that the developments this week were just the latest in a long line of distractions: “It is not just this week, it has been going on for some time and it is certainly not helping the players.”
At that point he remembered the restrictions on talking about the mess: “I have got to be careful what I say about the situation but it is certainly not helping the team. We know what is going on, but as players you have got a job to do on the pitch. You try to put what is going on off the pitch to the back of your mind – but sometimes it is impossible when it is every day.”
Rafa Benitez could have done with an assistant manager last night; he was suffering from a virus and avoided the pre-match interview with the TV channel. He lost his assistant manager earlier in the season after the pair disagreed; Rafa unhappy at what he felt was a lack of loyalty from Pako Ayesteran, who was said to have lined a manager’s job up in Spain. The club decided against releasing Pako from his contract, so he’s been getting his full pay, on gardening leave, ever since, and will be until the season ends.
But Rafa could have had an assistant manager last night, were it not for another block the owners are believed to have put on Rafa. Former Reds player and reserve coach Sammy Lee, himself a one-time player in the Spanish League, was sacked by Bolton earlier in the season. His assistant was Frank McParland, who was also sacked, and who had been Liverpool’s joint chief scout until the end of last season. Both Frank and Sammy were pictured openly chatting to Rick Parry and Rafa Benitez, amidst rumours that they would soon be appointed back to the club, with Sammy replacing Pako. But then it all went quiet – and it’s strongly rumoured that this was because the owners refused Rafa and Parry’s request to take the pair on. It was even suggested that Pako be released from his contract so the money saved in wages could be used towards Lee’s and McParland’s pay, but the owners just would not play ball.
Speaking through his flu Rafa wouldn’t – or perhaps didn’t dare – join his captain in saying the troubles were impacting performances. He said “It would be easy for me to say, yes, the problems are affecting the team. Maybe they are, maybe they are not. We should have won the match. We failed to score the second goal when we were on top and we were the better side. That is the recurring problem; that is the real reason.”
He wouldn’t be pushed into blaming the owners: “If we had scored a second, we would be talking now about a great game and result. I have heard what Steven has said, but I would rather not go that way.”
“We were controlling the game and creating all of the chances, but we needed to score the second goal to kill the game off. If we’d have scored the second goal I’m sure we’d have scored more because we were playing well.”
Rafa must have been frustrated afterwards. The Reds dominated the game, but couldn’t add to their shoreline, and it felt almost inevitable that Villa would score an equaliser against the run of play. He said: “I told the players after the game that if you can’t kill off the game you will give the other team hope and that was what happened. They were waiting for a free kick and they scored from two set pieces.” Villa have scored more goals from set pieces than any other side in the top flight this season.
In fact Rafa’s disappointment at drawing was tempered with relief that it didn’t end in defeat: “We had the chances to win, but we didn’t take them and in the end you have to be happy because we could have lost.”
Dirk Kuyt played well in the first half, setting up the first goal, but a blunder in front of goal, caused by a bad first touch after Gerrard played him in, is what he’ll be remembered for in this match. Later on Peter Crouch came off the bench to score the equaliser, and Rafa was asked if he wished he’d put the England international on from the off: “We have played some games with Crouch and more or less it’s the same situation,” he said. “Kuyt is always around; he’s always creating chances for himself. Maybe if you use another player he will have these chances. For me, if we were using Voronin, Crouch or Kuyt it is more or less the same situation.”
Tom Hicks and George Gillett, the current owners, plan to take out a huge and potentially crippling loan, secured on the club. Whether that will come off still remains to be seen. They claim to be confident that it will, but reports continue to claim that it might be hitting more problems. The new stadium plans were due to be revealed tomorrow, two weeks after the New York presentations from two firms of architects who had been briefed to produce new proposals for a stadium downgraded from that revealed in the summer. They still may be, but without the finance in place the owners can’t say that they would be able go ahead with either option.
And in the wake of the recent troubles, very few supporters care about the stadium. We want to know who’s going to own us first, and if their plans for the future make a new stadium even worth going ahead with.